- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Air travel is ticking up, despite an increasing number of coronavirus cases and infection risks associated with crowded airports and packed planes.

According to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint data, between 200,000 and 500,000 people traveled by air in June. This month, between 500,000 and 700,000 travelers so far have taken flight.

Major airlines are employing a number of precautions as more people travel by air and many states report increasing coronavirus infections.

Some airlines, including Southwest, Delta and Alaska Airlines, have limited plane capacity to increase distance among passengers, such as by blocking off the middle or adjacent seats through Sept. 30.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson said the airline is limiting the number of plane capacity to roughly two-thirds of maximum on every single flight and the company has added tens of thousands of flights so that middle seats can remain open.

Others, such as United Airlines, have not instituted space restrictions. American Airlines, which kept capacity at 85% starting in April, dropped its space limits at the beginning of this month.

American Airlines says it began screening customers June 30 during check-in to ensure they have been free of COVID-19 symptoms for the previous two weeks. The airline says it will continue to notify and allow customers to move to other flights when available without additional costs.

United also is offering to rebook for travelers on crowded flights.

This week, domestic U.S. flights are averaging about 55 passengers, down from about 100 from last year, according to data from the Airlines for America trade association.

Many airlines also are requiring passengers wear face coverings to help stem transmission of the respiratory illness.

Maddie King, a communications agent for United, said the company was the first major U.S.-based airline to require flight attendants to wear a face covering while on duty and mandated face masks for passengers in early May.

“United was one of the first major U.S. airlines to announce that any passenger who does not comply when on board a United flight will not be permitted to travel with United at least until our mask policy is in place,” she said. “Beginning July 24, customers will also be required to wear masks in United’s terminals.”

If customers refuse to comply, they could be refused travel and banned from flying with the airline while the face covering mandate is in place.

Another safety measure airlines are touting is their enhanced cleaning protocols and air filtration systems. The HEPA filters are reportedly 99% effective at removing particulate contaminants, including the virus that causes COVID-19, from recirculated air.

“The air flows from the ceiling to the floor and creates completely new air in the cabin 20-30 times an hour (every 2 to 3 minutes),” Alaska Airlines says on its website, noting that research shows cabin air filtration is comparable to what’s found in hospitals.

The airline also notes its food and beverage service has been reduced to limit interaction and encourages passengers to bring their own food and water.

Similar to other airlines, Alaska is using electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to emit a “safe, high-grade” cleaning solution that sanitizes surfaces such as armrests, tray tables, seatbelts, lavatories and overhead bins.

Although air travel has ticked up, the differences in the number of passengers flying this year compared to last year are staggering. TSA numbers show about 2 million to 2.7 million passengers a day flew from U.S. airports last year, highlighting the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

“Travel is a risky activity for many reasons. It is a risk to the traveler because he or she is congregated with others in the airport, through security and on the plane. But it also increases the risk of spread of COVID-19 across the country as individuals with the disease travel to other parts of the country. My advice is to limit air travel to only essential travel,” said Lawrence Gostin, global health law professor at Georgetown University.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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